I wasn’t going to write this post. At least, I wasn’t going to write it yet. I'm going to say some too-big-for-my-britches things about creative responsibility. I wanted to wait until I had a following that reached beyond my family and friends, but I felt like this was the time to talk about this.
I’ve mentioned before that my background is a mix of communication studies and sociology. I’m teaching a summer session of Mass Media and Society this summer, so I’ve spent a lot of time in the past week talking about identity and representation.
The crux of the course, the main thing that I’m trying to communicate to my students, is that art is never just art. In other words, it’s never just a game or just a movie. It’s a cultural shorthand. There are myriad social experiences that a single viewer/reader/player will never experience, so the mediated version of these experiences become the reality—I may never travel to Paris, but I’ve seen movies set there, and I’ve read books about Paris and Parisian life. For me, those representations make up the entirety of my view of what Paris is like.
We have a very specific view of artists in our society—the lone, starving artist, dedicated to their vision. We frame art as something that comes solely from within and is put into the world.
This, honestly, is a load of crap.
I don’t mean to imply that creative endeavor is impersonal, because obviously the desire to create and the things we choose to spend our time on are personal. But this notion that an artist’s creations aren’t informed by the world they live in is flat-out wrong.
People don’t live in a vacuum. The world that we live in and our social identities shape our experiences. My experiences and point of view as an American are going to translate into the things that I create—in a legal sense, I’m allowed to address topics that writers in other parts of the world can’t, and in a social sense, the things that I think are important are going to be defined by my context (for instance, my sociological background gives me a different set of tools with which to address issues than might be available to someone with a background in, say, physics). What we know, the body of information or ideas that we have to pull from, depends on our social context.
One of the second main themes of my class is that, while we can certainly be critical of media constructions and representations, we do have to acknowledge the degree to which they can present certain things as normal.
The media sell us ideas about what “normal American life” looks like. We tend to see the same patterns in our media narratives. Spend a couple of minutes on TV Tropes (you won’t just spend a couple of minutes; that site is a time-eater), and you’ll see that creative works tend to go back to some of these same safe patterns. Which is not necessarily a bad thing—it gives people something familiar to latch on to, and that can ease the whole story-telling process.
But there are a lot of tropes surrounding identity.
And those are just some of the ones related to racial identity and gender/sexual identity.
We see characters presented in certain ways over and over again—to the exclusion of other presentations. It normalizes these presentations. If you’re shown over and over again “this is what these people are like,” then, at a certain point, if you don’t see anything else, you accept that presentation.
Art isn’t consumed in a vacuum, either. Our readers/viewers/players also approach our work from within their context. And it’s very possible that their context has been shaped by some problematic things.
I’ve been thinking about my responsibility as someone who creates. I don’t like being told what I can and can’t do with a story more than anyone else, but it’s becoming clearer to me that I have to examine the context into which I’m releasing my work. What are some of the notions that I take for granted? That my readers take for granted? What’s shaping some of my story decisions, and do these decisions help or hurt the group that I’m trying to present?
I’m not perfect—obviously. I will inevitably slip up and produce pieces that are ignorant or hurtful. But if I don’t want my work to be used as an excuse to say “hey, all of group x are this way”—and let’s be clear, I don’t want that—then I have to take responsibility. I have to examine my context.